A peek in the plex, by Steven Levy

As promised, this week I’ll be doing a quick review of Steven Levy’s book, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives.

As a tech journalist, Levy had a perspective on Google that few have enjoyed. John Battelle, who previous tackled Google in his book The Search, said, “I had limited access to folks at Google, and *really* limited access to Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Levy had the opposite, spending more than two years inside the company and seeing any number of things that journalists would have killed to see in years past.”

Levy was first introduced to Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1999, when Google was just another Silicon Valley start up, albeit one that was creating a ton of industry buzz. Because of that early advantage, Levy was able to observe Google’s subsequent stages of evolution – from start up to search dominance, from an atmosphere that seemed more of a religious “cause” than “company”, from “don’t be evil” to “evil may be in the eye of the beholder.”

Given the intimate viewpoint afforded Levy, I couldn’t help coming away somewhat disappointed with the end result. Levy approached this as a journalist and resists the temptation to put Google’s story in a larger context. Battelle did a much better job of pinpointing Google’s place in the social fabric of our lives in his book. One could argue that they’re two different books, with two different objectives, but Levy’s subtitle, “How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives” seems to promise more. The book does a good job delivering on the first two promises, but falls short on the third. Battelle managed to step back and give us a view of Google that, while admittedly awestruck, also intimated that we were on the cusp of a social change of immense importance and that it may not all be positive. Battelle seemed much more comfortable with the bigger picture than does Levy, and the book suffers from this.

The first half of the book treads the same “Gee whiz, isn’t Google brilliant!” path that is rapidly becoming wearisome. We gain some inside perspectives from some early Google employees, but there was nothing that really added to the Google canon here. I don’t disagree that Google was brilliant, especially in the early days, but that’s not particularly news to anyone at this point.

The book does begin to hit its stride in the second half when the shine wears off Google and it has to deal with the bumps and bruises it gains in dealing with a real world that didn’t always align with Google’s admittedly naïve view of how things should be. The unexpected privacy backlash to Google’s attempt to monetize Gmail, the copyright battle sparked by Google Books and the entire Google China debacle all paint a picture of a company that seems to shoot itself in the foot just as often as it shoots for the stars.

Levy also hints at some internal tension between Google’s triumvirate of Page, Brin and Eric Schmidt, or “LSE” as Levy collectively refers to them. Page, in particular, never seemed to fully overcome his resentment of the imposition of “adult supervision” forced upon Google in its formative years by early VC investors. Due to the timing of the book, we gain no insights into the behind-the-scenes story that lead to Schmidt’s replacement as CEO by Page late last year. It seems there’s much more to the story then what we currently know, but you won’t be any the wiser for reading Levy’s book.

Throughout the book, I got the sense that just when things could become really interesting, Levy stepped back. As Battelle noted in his review, “I was a bit disappointed with the book in that Steven didn’t take all that new knowledge and pull back to give us his own analysis of what it all meant. I asked him about this, and he said he made the conscious decision to not editorialize, but rather lay it all out there and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.”

In my opinion, Levy’s decision to not editorialize diminishes the importance of the book. If you chart the tone of Google through Levy’s reportage, there is a definite arc, from naïve brilliance through world dominating arrogance and back down to shock and disbelief that everything doesn’t always work out the way Google thinks it should. I can’t help thinking that Google is at a critical point in its evolution, wondering what it will become in the future. As Levy states, Google is currently wrestling with “how it hopes to maintain its soul.” Levy could have provided unique insight into possible answers to that question, but he chose instead to leave it up to us.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider September 1, 2011